Digital downside

| Updated on February 10, 2019 Published on February 10, 2019

Embrace digitalisation by all means, but minimise exclusion of populations

The outgoing NDA government’s decision to identify digitalisation of the nation and its economy as one of ten priorities in its Vision 2030 is a welcome move that must be embraced wholeheartedly by whoever comes to power in May 2019. Digitalisation cannot be deferred, given that everything from education, medicine, communication, business, financial transaction and governance is moving in that direction. Adoption of digitalisation has been a relatively slow process in India, hampered by multiple factors, from poor telecom and broadband infrastructure, erratic supply of electricity, low literacy among the poor, resistance from employees who feared redundancy and a rent-seeking government machinery that wanted opaqueness to continue in provision of services. Undeniably, digitalisation of various services provided by governments and their agencies has improved governance and helped the aam aadmi. From applying for water and electricity connections and paying those bills, paying taxes, registering property records, applying for a driving licence or a passport and even registering a business and filing statutory returns, all can be done online, saving people the time wasted in queues and improving their productivity. Growing digitalisation has also allowed e-learning, where students in remote locations can join classes held in another part of the country. Likewise, patients and doctors in one part of the country can consult specialists elsewhere without the need to travel. Changes in digital technology and its greater adoption in communications have proved useful in rescue and relief in times of calamities such as floods and earthquakes.

Greater digitalisation will also mean many new skills will be required in the economy and therefore school, university and professional courses curriculum need to be regularly reviewed and synchronised. Rising digitalisation will have to be supported with availability of affordable good quality hardware such as devices as well as faster and inexpensive connections. While data costs are among the lowest in India, average traffic per capita per month at 2.4 gigabytes, lags the global average of 16.2 GB. Likewise, data speed. The average speed of fixed broadband is 9.5 megabytes per second here compared to the global average of 39 Mbps.

In the Interim Budget, the government proposed converting one lakh villages into digital villages over the next five years. To achieve that goal, electricity and broadband infrastructure needs to be strengthened and basic literacy and digital literacy among the poor improved. While electricity has reached most villages, its supply remains erratic and unstable. The rollout of broadband connectivity to the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats by the state enterprises Bharat Broadband Network Ltd and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd by March 2019 is way behind schedule. Digital literacy is low among the poor and many lack even basic literacy. This impedes welfare outreach. The trinity of Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile phone has helped faster transfer of funds to beneficiary accounts. But gaps in reconciling or matching information of the three have also meant denial of benefits to rightful beneficiaries.

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Published on February 10, 2019
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